SCOTLAND has seen a dramatic spike in the number of Vietnamese trafficking victims coming to the country in recent weeks, it has emerged, with trafficking experts warning that a criminal “mafia” is behind the rise.

It has led to speculation that the 39 people tragically found dead in the back of a lorry container in Essex – who are now understood to include Vietnamese nationals – could “conceivably” have been due to continue their journey north of the Border.

Essex Police yesterday charged the lorry driver, Maurice Robinson, 25, with manslaughter, along with people trafficking, immigration and money-laundering offences after discovering the lorry in Grays on Wednesday.

Three others, a man and a woman, both 38, from Warrington, Cheshire, and a 48-year-old man from Northern Ireland, have been arrested on suspicion of manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic people.

While police are still investigating lines of inquiry to “establish whether there is a wider conspiracy involved”, experts said though people may start journeys believing they were being smuggled, rather than trafficked, ongoing debt bondage was a common occurrence in Vietnamese cases.


VietHome, an organisation that represents the Vietnamese community in the UK, said it had received photos of nearly 20 people reported missing, with many families raising fears that their loved one could be among the dead.

Earlier this month the Scottish Government revealed that more victims of human trafficking and exploitation are being identified in Scotland than ever before. In the first six months of 2019, 188 victims have been identified – a 74% increase on the same period last year.

Now those working on the front line, including NGOs and lawyers, say that the increase is continuing, and is driven by an influx of cases from Vietnam. The Sunday National understands that charities such as Migrant Help, TARA and the Scottish Guardianship Service are seeing a surge of cases, with a spike in referrals not just in recent months but in the last week.

The National: A photo released by the family of Nguyen Dinh Luong, who is feared to be among the deadA photo released by the family of Nguyen Dinh Luong, who is feared to be among the dead

In September the Sunday National reported growing concerns about the record number of young people being referred to the Guardianship service, run by the Aberlour charity in partnership with the Scottish Refugee Council. The majority of 100 or so young people being supported by workers are from Vietnam.

Kirsty Thomson, a partner at legal firm Just Right Scotland – who heads up the charity’s anti-trafficking and exploitation centre – said that she and her team had been forced to turn away referrals because they did not have the capacity to cope.

She said questions must be raised about what is fuelling the spike and why Scotland is seeing a higher proportion of Vietnamese than the rest of the UK. “The numbers of referrals of Vietnamese nationals presumed to be victims of human trafficking has sharply risen in recent weeks.

“The numbers of referrals to us and our NGO partners have hit an all-time high with numbers increasing again last week.” It is important to acknowledge the criminal element involved, she claimed. “It’s so controlled, so organised. It’s a mafia and the mafia are in our country.

“It is conceivable that when we find out more, the individuals in that lorry could have been on route to Scotland, could have been on their way to a nail bar you use in your local town.

“We often hear from people from this part of the world that they are put in these containers to get to the UK and then transported onwards in smaller vehicles, cars or vans, to other parts of the UK. That is exactly how people will arrive here in Scotland too. We need this to be a wake-up call and we need to look at why this is happening.”

READ MORE: Lorry containing 39 dead people could have taken several routes to UK

She said many might believe they were being smuggled when they left Vietnam. But, as their dangerous journeys continued, they quickly found themselves vulnerable to trafficking situations.

The National: Detective Chief Inspector Martin Pasmore speaks to the mediaDetective Chief Inspector Martin Pasmore speaks to the media

Commonly Vietnamese people are brought across land through Russia and Eastern Europe, switching between cars and vans and doing some of the journey on foot. Though flights may also be used – usually using false passports and visas – the final part of the journey to the UK will normally be done by lorry.

Journeys made by refugees and undocumented migrants – whether fleeing war, persecution or poverty – are notoriously dangerous. In 2000, 56 out of 58 Chinese nationals suffocated inside a container smuggled into Dover. In 2015 71 people – fleeing countries including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – were found dead in an abandoned truck in Austria. So far this year 2,573 deaths have been recorded globally according to the Missing Migrants Project, including 83 in Europe – with 43 suffocating.

Thomson added: “Where human trafficking is involved the journeys take longer with people being exploited along the way – forced to work in labour camps or sexually exploited. They are not human beings to the crime gangs involved – at each point they will push and exploit for maximum gain.”

With the increase in scanning software at many ports, it has been reported that trafficking gangs are coming up with increasingly creative ways of evading detection. It is thought that the people who died last week were brought from Zeebrugge to Purfleet because less security was in operation. It has also been claimed they are increasingly using refrigerated containers to lower the risk of being caught.

“People have increasingly spoken to me and my team about the level of cold on the journey and struggling to breath,” added Thomson. “Once you start that journey you can’t say: ‘I’ve changed my mind, I don’t want to do on this.’ “There is fear of retribution, though guns, through brute force or through links to family back home. Often, to be honest, by that point in the journey there is no resistance left.”

On Friday the family of 26-year-old Pham Thi Tra, who they fear may be one of the victims, shared heart-breaking messages she sent her parents at 22:30 BST on Tuesday – two hours before the trailer arrived at the Purfleet terminal.

Translated, they read: “I’m sorry Mum. My journey abroad hasn’t succeeded. Mum, I love you so much! I’m dying because I can’t breathe ... I am sorry, Mum.” She was from Hà Tĩnh, one of the poorest provinces of Vietnam.

Relatives of Nguyen Dinh Luong, 20, have also said they fear he is among the 39 victims. His father, Nguyen Dinh Gia, said he had not heard from his son since last week when he said he was joining a group in Paris to try to reach the UK.

One senior manager working in fresh produce – based in England but with supply-chain facilities in Scotland – said that any business relying on vulnerable and low-paid workers who thought that it had no issue with trafficking or people smuggling was “naive”.

READ MORE: Driver arrested as 39 people found dead in Essex lorry container

He realised some workers in a factory he was overseeing were trafficked in 2005 after he was approached by a Lithuanian woman working for him.

She was covering bruising to her neck with a scarf and told him that her wages were being withheld along with those of six others working in the factory.

He tried to report it to the police, who at that time mishandled the report, so he stepped in to make sure the workers were safe – and as a result received a chilling call from the exploiter, who knew where he lived and that he had a wife and two sons.

SINCE then he has opened lorries to find people concealed inside several times. “I always make sure they are met with drinks and food and smiles,” he says. “We call the authorities but we also make sure we consider their welfare.”

He was horrified to hear of last week’s tragedy but is left with a frightening doubt. “What pains me is to think: ‘Were there other lorries that we didn’t find? People who disappeared?’ That thought haunts me, to be honest.”

He believes businesses must be more alert to the issue, to fight back by ensuring their workers’ rights and welfare, but also that the public must make the connection between cheap goods and exploitation.

“There are an estimated 136k victims in the UK according to the Global Slavery Index for UK,” he said. “Think of all the car-washes, those working in construction, in hospitality.

It translates as one in 500 people, so anyone who has a supply-chain with those type of numbers will – by the law of averages – have someone affected.”

Many have claimed that the tragedy highlights the need for safe routes both into – and within – Europe. “Tougher controls by governments simply push people to more dangerous routes, and to place their lives in the hands of smugglers,” said Robina Qureshi, director of Positive Action in Housing (PIAH). “There are 65.6 million people who have been forcibly displaced because of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations.

“We have to ask why people would be using such dangerous routes or became susceptible to trafficking in the first place. Sadly, with the growing anti-immigrant rhetoric of our leaders and their fixation on borders and walls, we should expect more lorry loads of dead refugees or migrants at our borders.”

To Steve Valdez-Symonds, refugee and migrant rights programme director at Amnesty UK, the hypocrisy of governments is clear when it comes to the lack of safe routes.

“These journeys are going on all the time,” he said. “The authorities know this. So coming out after these 39 deaths – which are just terrible – and saying ‘something must be done’ is hypocritical.”

The worst possible response is to put in place “more checks and more fences”, he insists. Instead, he said, we should ensure the UK offers more resettlement programmes to help refugees out of dangerous countries or camps, better access to family reunion, and better recognise the need for low-paid workers in many sectors, who are often shut out of the immigration system.

People are often aware of the extreme risks they are taking. Amnesty reports girls and women making journeys through Libya to reach safety will take contraceptives in advance because they expect to be raped. “But the situation they are in before they embark on their journey leaves them no choice but to hope that it will be successful – that something safe and sustainable will be waiting for them on the other side,” said Valdez-Symonds.

DCI Rory Hamilton, of Police Scotland’s National Human Trafficking Unit, said: “There has been an increase in the number of people reporting being trafficked from Vietnam to Scotland. We are working closely with partners to ensure that victims receive the necessary support that they require while we carry out our investigations to identify those responsible.”

A spokeswoman said the Scottish Government was “sympathetic to those who face difficulty navigating the increasingly restrictive UK immigration and asylum rules”.

She said: “Human trafficking is an appalling crime and all right-minded people will feel utter revulsion at the thought of anyone seeking to profit from other people’s misery and behaving with such reckless disregard for human lives. Our thoughts are with the relatives and loved ones of the 39 people who died in the tragedy.”